The Soul Crushing Self-Doubt of Writers

I recently saw a tweet by Kate Danley, one of my colleagues at 47North, author of The Woodcutter. It went like this: “Except for the soul crushing self doubt, being a writer is grand!”

That spoke to me because all authors experience that insidious soul-crushing force. I have followed several NY Times bestselling authors on Twitters and I hang out with enough authors on-line to have seen this theme pervasively. Authors aren’t the only ones who experience it, but it is pretty common among us.

I think it’s time we knock it off.

John Adams once said, “A desire to be observed, considered, esteemed, praised, beloved, and admired by his fellows is one of the earliest as well as the keenest dispositions discovered in the heart of man.” I’m pretty sure it’s the same for women as well. I’m guilty as charged. I love reading positive reviews from my readers. I don’t enjoy reading negative ones. But I’m grateful to receive both kinds. Each review marks a new connection with a reader. I don’t expect that my books will universally appeal to every intelligent human being.

There is research too that shows that negative emotions take longer to dispel than positive ones:

“Every time a business in the service industry creates a negative emotion in the mind of a customer or client, that individual will share his dissatisfaction with an average of ten people before the emotion dissipates. The same research shows that a person who is impressed with a service will share that positive emotion with an average of only three other people at most. Given this situation it’s obvious why negative news travels faster and farther than positive news.” (Success Unlimited, December 1982, Dwight Chapin)

Let’s face the facts. Reading a good review feels great. It’s a big boost to the self-esteem. Sadly, the feeling quickly wears off. Fortunately, it’s the same for the bad reviews too. Those negative feelings wear off too.

One of my creative writing instructors in college warned us all to “Beware the Ogre of Author Pride.” What he meant is that the desire to be esteemed and praised (what John Adams said) would override our ability to receive feedback and criticism and thus help us improve as writers.

My readers know that I collect quotes from the ages. Here are some of my favorite thoughts given by advisors to ancient Roman emperors (and may apply to NY Times bestselling authors as well.)

  1. Plutarch said, “Neither blame or praise yourself.” Doesn’t matter if the review is 1-star or 5-star.
  2. Ovid wrote, “We are slow to believe that which if believed would hurt our feelings.” Enough said Ogre!
  3. Again from Plutarch: “Know how to listen, and you will profit even from those who talk badly.” We should read criticism even from the unworthy. There may be a nugget of truth in the criticism.
  4. A favorite from Seneca: “Away with the world’s opinion of you—it’s always unsettled and divided.” So true!
  5. Another from Seneca, and it applies to women as much as men: “You can tell the character of every man when you see how he receives praise.”


Since my books really started to sell this year, I’ve had many requests for advice from writers starting out on their writing journey. I’ll tell you what I’ve been telling them. My only advice  is to not listen to advice like mine. If you ask every writer, you will get his or her opinion. There is no secret sauce. There is no magic recipe. Some writers need a lot of time to write a book. Some need very little. There isn’t a right or wrong way to do it. Some have to write 1,000,000 words before they’ve had enough practice (that would be me). Some get it right after the first draft is done. Some writers say you have to edit-edit-edit. Others say you need to outline-outline-outline. None of that advice matters. The way you write will be unique to you. Write what you love. Set aside some time to do it regularly. And learn to banish that Ogre of author pride and accept feedback and criticism to improve.

Now get to work on that next chapter!

Jeff Wheeler

Jeff Wheeler

Wall Street Journal bestselling author of over forty epic fantasy novels.

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  • Salvador Mercer says:

    Glad you made it back to post again. Enjoyed your latest work, (Fireblood) will read the Muirwood series after I finish my reread of the LOTR. Bought and sent a hard copy for my 14 year old daughter and she is enjoying too. Do post more often. Oh and yes agreed, get to that next chapter, am waiting anxiously for the sequel to Fireblood!

  • Kris says:

    Jeff! I’m a 45 year old wife and mother (and new blogger … just linked your work) and I am smitten with your Muirwood series. It’s ben a very long time since anyone’s been able to capture my attention and you’ve done it in spades. 🙂 Just wanted to say hi neighbor (I’m from Citrus Heights and went to Sierra College) and GREAT WORK! I’ve been reading your books as I learn to run on the treadmill and I’m down 5 pounds in 2 weeks because I don’t want to get off! Ha! ~ Kris 🙂

  • Diedre Smith says:

    This posting reminds me of one of the best (though not intended) artist’s advice publications: Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. Rather than seeking approval or criticism from perceived experts, “go into yourself and seek the depths from which your life flows…”
    I love measured doses of Rilke!

    Clearly your ogre looms loud and large if you are surprised at the success of Muirwood. As a reader, I am disappointed more often than not since I can’t help but place new books in the shadows of my favorites: LOTR, Harry Potter, and The Princess Bride, and most recently Night Circus (ironically by a real Morgenstern). I loved Muirwood. I came across it after endless Amazon browsing for something new to consume. If only there was some way to wade through the swamps of fictional (often popular) muck …… At least I can do my part by recommending it!

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